I graduated from college a couple of years ago, long enough to no longer be called a recent grad, but still fresh enough to be working at the bottom rung of a very large company. As distinguished speakers take to quads and sports stadiums on campuses across the country to give some advice to the leaders of tomorrow, I realize I don’t remember much of the commencement speech from my graduation, just that it was outside exposed to the elements on an unusually frigid and rainy Chicago spring day. Someone made a joke about pirates, I recall. I was cold and miserable then, more concerned with ways to prevent the rain from soaking my collar, but I wish I had been told a few things:
Things are not going to work out immediately. Though the recession is officially over, half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, and there’s a good chance your first job won’t even require that degree you ponied up for. That’s especially true if you had a fake major (who knew all those classes about masculinity and Japanese pop culture wouldn’t pay off?), and aren’t planning to spend the next decade in a grad school or injecting things into mice, which I’m pretty sure is the main thing scientists do.
Be aware that more and more companies have realized that they can fill the lowest rungs in the office with a slew of unpaid internships, and in some industries, you should probably expect to work for free at first. This is most certainly not fair but is nonetheless the case. If you don’t want to be like those characters in Girls, be willing to work part time in the evenings, after your internship ends. Most bar, coffee shop and other service sector gigs are open outside of the regular business day, so you can probably fit in a few hours here and there to pay the rent.
Don’t move to New York. Especially if you aren’t from there originally, and don’t have a job lined up. It is incredibly expensive and everyone else will be competing for the exact same positions as you. There are plenty of lovely Midwestern cities (or even Philadelphia) with affordable rents to choose from if you’re thinking of striking it out alone.
Send all of the emails to all of the jobs that are hiring. All of them. You can decide whether or not you want the job when they offer it to you. Until then, suspend your disbelief and keep your eyes open. Applying for jobs is like playing roulette: Maybe you will teach children how to play sports, be an archivist at the Football Hall of Fame, or work for an aggregation website in a city 500 miles away. Who knows!
If you have more than two or three different versions of your resume, you are doing it wrong. And after applying for job number five, you should have plenty of cover letters to be able to cut and paste paragraphs to suit your needs. Just be sure to change out the name of the company you’re applying to. And don’t start too many sentences with “I”.
There is a feature on Gmail that will allow you to immediately unsend an email if you realize you misspelled the HR person’s name a second after pressing send. Enable that feature. If you misspell someone’s name in a thank you email, you are never going to get that job. But do send thank yous after a job interview. Not immediately — don’t seem desperate. Wait a good 24 hours. Rule of thumb is to follow normal dating protocol, but without any of the alcohol. Also, if you smoke, don’t smell like cigarettes on the way in. Smoke afterwards. It might calm your nerves, but unless you’re applying to RJ Reynolds or the fashion industry no one will think you’re cool and debonair. Have a mint instead.
Save up any of the money you earn. Eating poorly isn’t very fun, but on your one day off of a two-job, 70-hour work week you could fall asleep on the subway home and have your phone stolen. The thief may ask for remuneration — a “finder’s fee,” he may call it — to get your device back. When you drive into the suburbs to pay him, there is no possible way to express the mixture of disgust, shame and self-righteousness you will feel. Pay him the $60 he asks for and skulk away.
If you can, buy a nice suit. Employers will respect it. And an iron. I wish I had bought an iron sooner. It makes your shirts and pants look nice between washings and keeps them in good shape. That will be important when you’re not being paid and wearing two shirts a week to make copies and pick up other people’s coffee.
Tide makes a product called the Tide To Go stick that you can apply to small stains on shirts and ties and is really quite wonderful. It will save you hundreds in future dry cleaning bills, especially if you eat a lot of leftover pasta with tomato sauce for lunch.
Similarly, do not wear white shirts. You will stain the collar with the sweat from your neck and there are finite washes before it becomes yellowed. Go for a subtle pattern. You know why airports and high schools have patterned carpets? To hide the stains. Follow their lead.
If you are working an internship that pays you and gives you a 1099 form at tax time, pay the IRS even if the free H&R Block website charges you for dealing with 1099s. The IRS is really good at finding people and you do not want to owe them $500 next year because you didn’t pay now.
It is going to be incredibly frustrating and disheartening to graduate into the remnants of the worst economic climate in a lifetime, but things will indeed work out in the end. People who are qualified and work hard eventually get jobs doing something they care about. They will find themselves in a pleasing environment surrounded by lovely people doing fun stuff. In ten years, you won’t believe how good you had it. Or else you can just go to grad school.